Thursday, November 03, 2005


I often get the nagging feeling that I should be medicated. I feel this way primarily because I sense it might help me compete better or focus on and complete more tasks during the day, tasks which normally would be left undone, waiting for a day when a positive mood might strike me. I wonder if all those people out there who are getting ahead, accomplishing great things, aren’t using those SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) to get an edge. They are composed, relaxed and come off as honest. Yet, somehow I see taking SSRIs as cheating. Somehow you’re using somebody else’s brain chemistry.

This is how I feel I about Albert Garcia’s Skunk Talk on Bear Star Press. I feel that when I try to enter into Garcia’s world, the calming effect it has on me gives me that same feeling of cheating. Garcia’s lines come from the “measure twice, cut once” school. They are well-crafted, laconic, and endeavoring to be earnest. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his lines, which is a bit disconcerting because with corpulence often comes jocularity.

The poems and the speaker in them are pretty much no nonsense; there is very little impulse to go for the great guffaw. Valley poets are skeptical of the ecstatic. The closest they come are ordinary wonders, which this book is chock full of. Its raison d’etre is the ordinary wonders that are part of domestic life and the expressions of gratitude for the existence of these ordinary wonders, to hang a little meaning on them once and again.

The poems Garcia crafts are small nodules of prayer fashioned to draw attention to minor miracles and enhance their place in the world. The following scene where the speaker drives by and notices a man and a small girl bear witness to the death spiral of a pigeon is an example of just such a moment.

A Scene: Driving Past the Corner Market

What did he say, this man
holding his infant daughter,

hovering over the flapping, spinning
pigeon, injured or poisoned, flailing

its dusty wings on the hot sidewalk
outside the corner market?

The moment it took me to drive past,
I could see his mouth

speaking to the baby. Was he explaining
this is what happens

when a bird glances into a car’s fender,
when one grain of rat poison

looks like a bread crumb
and seizes a tiny nervous system?

Did he tell his daughter,
squirming in his arms to see

the bird’s irridescent head,
green and purple, thrashing

from side to side, that this too
is nature, the spasmodic

preparation for death?
Was he thinking

he should step on the bird’s head
to end the pain, to prevent

the girl, too young for words herself,
from seeing? Or was he saying

anything beyond, Damn, look at that,
amazed, on a warm spring day

on a walk to the market,
at the kind of frightening, beautiful miracle

the world can give a man
who holds tight to what he loves?

The last three lines are quintessential Garcia. His speaker throughout the book is firmly devoted to place, one might say almost obsessively committed to it. One of his mentors/heroes at the University of Montana was Richard Hugo, and presumably this is where Garcia locates his devotion to the small place that is subsequently writ large. Unlike Hugo’s larger-than-life characters though, Garcia’s preference is to reflect on primarily family, both past and present. The somewhat odd and introverted types, the town drunks and ballyhooers that Hugo documented are not at all present. Garcia’s main characters are his kids and his wife. This kind of humility is more typical of the Valley, where a sound practicality is what usually prevails instead of all that room under the Big Sky beckoning for a broad palette of expression. It is this sensibility that makes Garcia’s lines so stripped down. He doesn’t waste a word because it isn’t wise (nor efficient) to say more than you mean.

Writing about those who are so close is not an easy task. It always looks easier from afar than it does up close. In the same manner, it is a lot easier to talk about than practice. In many ways it seems very cautious to take on “just what you know,” but those who practice writing about loved ones know of its perils. It takes wisdom and precision to place words on those who reside so close. It’s not a job for those who use words to evoke a reaction or make an impression. This kind of writing is the serious work of making one’s mark as a guide, not as a curse or a blessing. Garcia does this kind of serious work well. While Garcia does fawn over his wife in his love poems for his wife that capture their small intimacies as another variety of astonishing moment, his poems about his children show the deftness of his touch. In "‘Possum" where the speaker (presumably Garcia) gets excited about spotting a possum in the garage only to have his daughter, whom he has been watching from afar, look right through him and pronounce him as something of a ‘possum geek, Garcia depicts his daughter as following her own course despite the attempts of grown-ups to guide her attention. In choosing this manner of depiction, he is officially giving license to his daughter to find her own way (even though she probably would anyway without license being given).

Writing a poem about a child is a bit like getting on stage with a dog. There are very real and specific dangers to consider. With a dog, one must have no illusions about being upstaged. With a child in a poem, one must walk that razor thin edge between sentiment and mawkishness. A poem like "Ice" inhabits the no man’s land between the two. The poem serves as a vehicle to address the constant state of wonder the small child possesses. It is that state of wonder that Garcia is circling around throughout Skunk Talk. Garcia seems to be saying that this state of wonder is the one that sustains us through our lives, that if we don’t hold on to it, we find ourselves in a much more forbidding world.

Most of the poems in Skunk Talk employ the standard mode of poetry as witness and narrative. Occasionally, though, Garcia sneaks off into a pointedly imagined space.


Under the heat-blistered walls of this house,
water laps and trickles between rocks.

It’s dark down there—disturbed by no one—
just the occasional well like ours

sucking the liquid, gallon by gallon, up
through strata to sprinkler heads,

kitchen faucet, a tin cup
in my wife’s hands, her lips. I want

an opening, a hatch in our back lawn
that hides a shining metal tube

we can slide down for hundreds of feet
until we splash in a room

of water, a cavern. My wife
would swim beside me, both of us

gliding through the pool
like otters, swimming, drinking, swimming,

gulping until we’re under water
all the time, lifting our lips

to the surface to catch droplets
percolating out of the rock ceiling,

spilling toward out faces,
believers in a world that’s gentle and cool.

The assumption in the last line is that the world is generally not gentle and cool. It is hot, tumultuous and it may do bodily damage if given an opening. This is poet as protector. As I mentioned above, the antidote to the “heat” (remember that it is the heat that threatens in the Sacramento clime) is the time-stopping marvel that rescues one from the passionate pursuits of humans in the world and deposits one in a place (like an imagined cavern filled with cool water) where the brain can relax. Aha! I am back to the relaxed brain. It seems as though I am going to have to discover some small miracle in order to shut mine off.

Albert Garcia’s Skunk Talk is a tribute to the life’s work of a decent fellow. His work is not flashy. It does not call attention to itself. It does not try to set the world on fire. For this reason, there will probably never be a screenplay adapted from this book, probably not even a television show. The voice is steady and sincere. If a reader becomes habituated to the space it occupies, the world will slowly scab over, and the reader might even discover the compulsion to pick at it is lost.